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Steps Toward Ulster Peace

PEACE negotiations on Northern Ireland must continue not because of, but despite, the IRA bombing of London's Docklands district Feb. 9.

No one needed another reminder of how grisly and destructive the long battle over Ulster can be. The bomb ended a 17-month cease-fire, during which the Irish and British governments, various Northern Irish parties, and the United States, acting as catalyst, had inched forward a delicate process of dialogue.

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The biggest obstacle was ''decommissioning,'' the handing over of weapons by both sides - republican and unionist. Britain wanted this step as a precondition for formal talks; the IRA and its political arm, Sinn Fein, rejected that approach. A breakthrough could have come last month, when an international panel, headed by former US Sen. George Mitchell, recommended simultaneous disarming and all-party talks.

The Mitchell recommendations were greeted lukewarmly by British Prime Minister John Major, who tried to switch the emphasis to another idea: elections to choose representatives for the proposed peace conference. The British argued this was a way to enhance confidence on all sides. Many Northern Irish Catholics, however, instinctively recoil from this suggestion, viewing elections as a way of reaffirming Protestant majority rule. Dublin, meanwhile, came up with a counter offer: mediated ''proximity'' talks (as distinct from direct, face-to-face talks), along the lines of the Dayton, Ohio, negotiations that led to an accord on Balkans peace.

Paths toward peace, it seemed, were many, but the will to compromise and move ahead hadn't yet coalesced.

The IRA, apparently, lost patience with all this and went back to what it knows best. Beyond its immediate toll in lives and property, the Docklands blast shook - but, we hope, did not shatter - the precarious trust and normalcy built up over the months of cease-fire. Sinn Fein is now under tremendous pressure to show that it represents more than a small corps of violence-prone die-hards. The role of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is ambiguous, at best. How can he now regain credibility as a would-be peacemaker?

A criminal act, taking the lives of innocent people, is antithetical to a constructive political process. The great majority of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland yearn for peace and support the processes of negotiation and reconciliation that build peace. Those who cling to the habit of violence only marginalize themselves.

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